PUTIN'S AGENTS AND A LICENCE TO KILL
CHRIST, how I miss the Cold War, remarks 'M' in Casino Royale, as she and Bond wrestle with the complexities of terrorist finance. The way things are going, she ñ and her real life counterparts ñ might not have long to wait for its return.
The plight of Alexander Litvinenko is not a scene from a film or a story from the past. It is from London in 2006.
A city where foreign killers can stalk the streets and silence an enemy of the Kremlin as coldly and contemptuously as they killed Georgi Markov, the heroic anti-Communist Bulgarian broadcaster, in 1978.
It's not just that the KGB's old habits of disinformation and mischief-making are still with us, but that the organisation's tentacles reach as far and formidably as ever. And who better to supervise this than the taciturn, foul-mouthed KGB Lieutenant-General [actually Lt-Col--the Daily Mail promoted him] Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (retd.)?
Litvinenko, a career security officer first in the KGB, then in its successor organisation the FSB, was a friend of dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot dead in Moscow last month.
The two met regularly during her trips to London, sharing their concerns about the authoritarian tendencies of Putin's Russia.
But do those reach as far as murder? In the old days of the KGB, enemies of the Soviet Union were mercilessly hunted down and killed. Leon Trotsky in Mexico with an ice pick. Markov on Waterloo Bridge, with a poisoned umbrella.
Scores of others died from assassins' bullets, mysterious illnesses, convenient car crashes. But after the collapse of Communism, and the birth of a new Russia pledged to democratisation and a pro-Western stance, the grim years of the Cold War seemed consigned to history.
Now, like a zombie crawling out of the grave, the terrifying shadow of the Soviet past is again falling across Europe. Russia might have ditched Communism but the Kremlin has not lost its thirst for power, at home and abroad.
Whereas during the days of the Cold War the KGB was an arm of the Soviet state, with Putin's ascent to power the KGB effectively took over the state. The result is 'Kremlin, Inc', which combines the greed of business with the ruthlessness of espionage and the bluster of a superpower.
RUSSIA makes no secret of its willingness to use assassination against what it calls 'terrorists'. Russian agents killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, president-in-exile of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, in a car bomb attack in Qatar in 2004. They were caught, convicted ñ and received a heroes' welcome when they were finally returned to Moscow.
The attempted murder of Litvinenko forms part of a grim pattern of intimidation. At home and abroad, enemies of the Kremlin tend to die in mysterious circumstances. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, then a candidate for the presidency of Ukraine, was poisoned, surviving with a hideously pockmarked face.
Miss Politkovskaya, a regular contributor to the foreign media, was shot dead, perhaps by those whose wrongdoing she exposed -- and perhaps also to silence those Russian journalists brave enough to criticise the Kremlin abroad. The attempted assassination of Litvinenko was a further warning to those outside Russia that criticism would not be tolerated.
That is what Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire businessman who dominated Russian political life in the 1990s -- and is now better guarded than most heads of state -- believes. Russia, he says, is practising 'state banditry'. Putin no longer cares 'in the slightest' for western disapproval. 'He thinks having oil he is free to do everything he wants. And he is correct.'
Other defectors and critics of Russia, in London and elsewhere, are nervously wondering who will be next. A past spent serving the Soviet state is no guarantee to a safe future: Putin was Litvinenko's immediate [well not really direct boss, maybe direct order on one or two occasions--EL] boss when both were in the FSB.
There are tantalising clues to the reach of the Kremlin's tentacles across the globe from mysterious, expertly-produced disinformation websites that subtly push the Kremlin line and cases such as that of the Venezuelan drug smugglers who were found to have Russian technicians building a submarine for them.
Ironically, just as the Kremlin's critics in London are being cowed, the Russian presence in Britain has never been stronger ñ with the relative safety of life here being a big reason. Up to 250,000 Russians live in Britain, ranging from illegal cleaners to plutocrats such as Roman Abramovich. The latter kind have London mansions and lavish country estates. They send their children to the best boarding schools.
Yet though they vote with their feet and their wallets for the security and freedom Britain offers, they have no desire to criticise the greed and brutality of the regime at home. 'The people who came as dissidents are the only ones to raise their voices,' says Natasha Chouvayeva, the veteran editor of Londonskiy Kurier, Britain's main Russian-language paper.
'The later ones don't really care what is happening so long as Russia is stable and good for business.'
Not that western censure presents any problem for Putin. The U.S. has humiliatingly abandoned any attempt to put Russia under pressure, in exchange for Kremlin help in influencing North Korea and Iran. France, Italy and Germany are worried only about gas, not freedom.
And that is the tragedy. The first Cold War presented a clear choice between right and wrong. In the new one, Russia is not handicapped by Communism, but fuelled by money, which trumps truth and decency every time.
Will the Kremlin ever come clean on both the crimes of the Soviet Union, and those of the regime now headed by Putin, who worked for the KGB when it unashamedly went round the world assassinating those who dared dissent?
That moment will come only when Russia is a democratic, and friendly, country, not the authoritarian kleptocratic regime of today. When that day finally comes, as Russia's friends still hope, then both 'M' and Bond can wallow in nostalgia to their hearts' content. And Litvinenko's family will know who tried to kill their beloved 'Sasha'.
Edward Lucas is Central and East European correspondent for The Economist
Monday, November 20, 2006
PUTIN'S AGENTS AND A LICENCE TO KILL